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August 6, 2020

Anger mounts in Beirut as death toll tops 113

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August 6, 2020

BEIRUT: Anger mounted in Lebanon on Wednesday as rescuers searched for survivors of a cataclysmic explosion at Beirut port that wreaked destruction across the city, killing at least 113 people, wounding thousands and plunging crisis-stricken Lebanon further into the abyss. But hundreds have been reported missing, raising fears that the death toll will rise, Lebanon’s health minister said Wednesday.

The blast on Tuesday, apparently triggered by a fire igniting 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser left unsecured in a warehouse of Beirut port, washeard as far as Cyprus, some 150 miles (240 kilometres) away.

It struck the Lebanese capital like an earthquake, with dozens still missing on Wednesday, thousands of people left destitute and thousands more cramming into overwhelmed hospitals for treatment.

Lebanese authorities declared Beirut a “disaster city”, according to Lebanon State-run NNA news, citing a statement released by the country’s Minister of Information Manal Abdel Samad Najd. A state of emergency has been declared in Beirut for two weeks, Najd said in the statement, adding this could be extended. The country’s Council of Ministers made the two decisions on Wednesday in an “extraordinary session” headed by President Michel Aoun and in the presence of the prime minister.

The diameter of the Beirut crater created by Tuesday’s explosion appears to be roughly 124 meters — or about 405 feet, according to a CNN analysis of a Planet Labs, Inc. satellite image. That distance means the crater is well over a football field in length. Residents, desperate to reach their loved ones, are sharing pictures of missing relatives, as well as phone numbers online. Throughout the night, TV and radio presenters in Lebanon read the names of the missing or wounded.

One doctor, his own head bandaged like those of his patients, described the scene as “Armageddon”.”Wounded people bleeding out in the middle of the street, others lying on the ground in the hospital courtyard,” said Dr Antoine Qurban outside Hotel Dieu Hospital in central Beirut. And as volunteers led the clear-up effort, public outrage mounted over how such a vast haul of highly combustible material — sometimes used for homemade bombs — had been stored next to a densely populated area for at least six years. The government vowed to investigate and cabinet urged the military to place those responsible for storing the substance under house arrest.

Security forces launched an investigation in 2019, concluding the “dangerous” chemicals needed to be removed, but action was not taken. Analyst and Georgetown University professor Faysal Itani was not optimistic that anybody would be held accountable. There is a pervasive culture of negligence, petty corruption and blame-shifting endemic to the Lebanese bureaucracy, all overseen by a political class defined by its incompetence and contempt for the public good, he wrote in a New York Times op-ed.

City mayor Abboud said the devastation may have left 300,000 people temporarily homeless, adding to the cash-strapped country’s economic misery with an estimated $3 billion in damages.

“Even in the worst years of the civil war, we didn’t see so much damage over such a large area,” said analyst Kamal Tarabey.Aerial images from the scene of the explosion illustrate the impact of the blast, which destroyed crucial silos that contained around 85% of the country’s grain. Lebanon’s economy minister, Raoul Nehme, said the wheat in Beirut’s port granaries cannot be used and that the ministry lost track of seven employees in the granaries.

Hospitals already stretched to the brink by a spike in coronavirus cases were pushed to new limits by the influx of wounded and were forced to turn many away. Rafik Hariri University Hospital was already running low on its medical supplies due to the financial crisis in Lebanon when Covid-19 hit, Abiad said. And in this backdrop of a surge in cases during a second wave, came the casualties from Tuesday’s explosion, completely overwhelming the hospital. Now, it’s about to run out of supplies. “We are very close. I think, you know, when this happened yesterday, we threw everything that we had in our emergency room. We were trying to treat as much as we can. But with all honesty, if help does not arrive soon, we will be empty-handed very shortly,” he said.

In the Netherlands, a UN-backed tribunal said it had suspended a verdict on the 2005 murder in a huge Beirut bomb blast of former Lebanese premier Rafic Hariri, scheduled for Friday, following the latest carnage.